Dear Social Grace,
My adult siblings and I each live hundreds of miles away from my parents, and since none of us are in what anybody could define as a high-income bracket, visiting frequently is not an option. Visiting, period, tends to be difficult because one of my parents has an emotional disorder that makes any prolonged interaction unpleasant and damaging. The parent is not aware of the disorder nor the damage they consistently inflict, and is generally high-functioning in society, so the other parent will not push for any drastic therapy. As adults who have come to terms with our own needs for boundaries in this relationship, my siblings and I have chosen not to throw rocks at this particular hornet's nest.
It does leave us with interesting dilemmas when it comes to making sure that both parents feel loved and not abandoned. All of the siblings call our parents regularly (at least twice per month) and, for the past several years, have met our parents at another relative's home (in another part of the country entirely) for Christmas. However, I want to broach the idea of this Christmas gathering not being mandatory any longer. Only one of my siblings is married, and he did not make it to the gathering this year. My parent with the illness cannot conceive of a grown child NOT "coming home for Christmas" unless they are married, but this expectation is really unsustainable as I look ahead to the coming decades. My parents are in their early 50s and my youngest sibling is in his upper 20s.
Could you speak firstly to the kind and correct way to communicate with parents regarding holidays when their adult children are unmarried and therefore don't have a strong "excuse" for opting out, and also make any comments from your experience of the interaction between etiquette and having to deal with people whose social understanding is handicapped by emotional illness? (I am well aware that the particulars of a situation like ours is best addressed by a professional in the mental health field, but I would love to know your general thoughts and I know I am not the only person in your reading audience who finds themselves in such a situation.)
Wow, that is a can of worms indeed. First of all, kudos to you and your sibs for making peace with such a volatile and seemingly toxic situation, and for your desire to remain loving, kind and inclusive of your parents despite these challenges.
As far as making them feel loved throughout the year without frequent visits, that's the easy part. Even on a budget, thoughtfulness is easily expressed: greeting cards, emails, the phone calls which you already do, small gifts in the mail (I'm talking fuzzy pink socks for Mom whose feet are always cold, or a packet of Dad's favorite licorice, not cashmere sweaters) are all nice ways to let them know you care without exposing yourself to pain and suffering.
To your other, more complicated questions....
I view the holiday issue in the same way I view removing a band-aid or getting an eyebrow wax--the quicker and sooner the better. If you know that you are not coming home for Christmas by July 4 weekend, then speak up. Let Mom and Dad know that you have other plans. Say calmly and clearly that this is in no way a reflection on them (even if it is), but that at this stage in your life you feel the need to establish your own traditions in your own home. They may well come back with the "you're single, childless and still have roots with us." In that case, you can respond equally calmly with "Yes, that is indeed my demographic, but I still really want to spend Christmas [feeding the homeless,/working on my novel/painting my living room/not traveling/hiking in the woods]." Stick to your guns, no matter how aggressive they get; if you let them beat you down on this one you reduce your chance of ever getting out from under this obligation. To soften the blow, you can offer up a "Christmas Visit" at some point in striking distance of December if you wish. Often times, the holidays trigger the worst in people, particularly those with emotional difficulties. The alteration in routine, bigger crowds, the expectation of fun, festivity and gifts can prove extremely stressful and for this reason often result in ugly scenes and unpleasant memories. A random weekend in January might be far less dramatic.
The flipside of making the early pronouncement, is of course, that the parent may harangue you from July 5 through December 25. In that case, there's no reason to prolong the agony for yourself; put off letting them know until you can't reasonably avoid it, and at that point fasten your seatbelt. You will have to make the decision whether sooner or later is better for you based on the individuals and their personalities.
As far as etiquette issues around people with emotional illness, first of all, let me once again commend you on your good heart. Few people (even Graces) have the ability or desire to accommodate someone who is seemingly so difficult. The best way to address people with these types of challenges is to be kind, clear, and non judgemental. Present information to them in the most non threatening way. Do not become defensive, regardless of their reaction. Keep in mind that they are hampered by their illness and that prevents them from responding appropriately much of the time. Choose times and places that are most comfortable and manageable for the afflicted person--if they get tired in the evening and struggle more with interpersonal relationships toward nightfall, try to limit any controversial conversations to early morning.
If certain situations or individuals bring out the worst or trigger bad reactions, avoid them. If you know Aunt Tillie sets Dad off every time they get together, extricate your group from her company. Ditto restaurants or long car rides in traffic, loud music, or pets--whatever the trouble spots are, you may be able to reduce the outbursts by reducing the stress inducers. You clearly have an understanding of the disorder as an illness, so just as you would help a blind person across the street or a physically handicapped person up the stairs, you can help your parent cope with challenging situations by offering an 'emotional helping hand'. When things start escalating, diffuse--offer to take Mom for a walk or out for a coffee. Ask the person who seems to be the trigger to help you in the kitchen and remove them him from the situation. It is a big responsibility for you, no doubt, but since you seem to visit infrequently, you can limit your exposure to manageable time spans.
And please don't hesitate to seek the help of a professional if this gets to be too much for you. Your parents' unwillingness to treat the illness should not translate to you with regard to collateral damage.
I hope these suggestions help.
While I normally add an amusing pic or video clip here, this post doesn't really lend itself to levity. But the title inspired me to add this--Breaking Away is a great movie, and really uplifting. If you haven't seen it, do so soon!